The weather forecast was eerily familiar for Napa and Sonoma residents. Exactly two years to the day since the start of the devastating wine-country wildfires of 2017, hot, dry Diablo winds were expected to sweep through the North Bay Area. The forecast prompted Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the natural gas and electricity company that provides service to most of Northern California, to shut off power to large areas due to the heightened risk of power lines falling and sparking fires.
Winds and temperatures haven't been as extreme as two years ago, but preventative shutoffs were conducted nonetheless. The first wave came Wednesday morning, and within 24 hours shutoffs affected more than 1.5 million customers throughout Northern California, stretching from Humboldt to Santa Cruz counties, as well as in the Sierra Foothills. Most areas saw wind gusts ranging from 30 to 50 miles per hour early Thursday morning, with some upward of 60 miles per hour.
Outages have not been complete. Much of mid-Napa Valley, including parts of Rutherford and Oakville, are still online, whereas parts of Calistoga, St. Helena and the town of Napa are without power.
Most winery owners, aware of the possibility of outages, had prepared. Pickup trucks carrying generators dotted wine-country roads Tuesday afternoon, and many vintners reported having invested in a generator after the 2017 fires.
"Larkmead purchased a generator this summer, and have run the entire winery off the generator since 6 a.m. Wednesday," said winemaker Dan Petroski, noting that they finished harvesting Sept. 27, but some of the wines are still fermenting. "We're draining and pressing tanks, and barreling down finished wine, as well as maintaining our hospitality appointments. We've only had one couple cancel their appointment for this week because of the power outage."
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In Sonoma Valley, Marcia Kunde Mickelson of Kunde Family Wines reported losing power at midnight on Wednesday, but says they have continued work thanks to their generator. "We had our ducks in a row after the mess of 2017, and the generator is running along nicely, which powers our entire facility. Crush continues on and all is good."
For many, early October is a pivotal point of harvest, with grapes still coming into the winery and fermentations underway. Some have been able to carry on in the absence of power, while others have closed their tasting rooms, utilizing the generators exclusively for winemaking needs. Those generators are not cheap, but winery owners felt they had little choice.
PG&E is expected to slowly restore power to parts of Northern California as conditions improve. The company is in the midst of a bankruptcy reorganization and agreed to an $11 billion settlement with wildfire victims last month. It still faces additional lawsuits. Critics say that the utility needs to improve its system to minimize fire risk so that preventive blackouts can be more targeted.
For now the biggest inconvenience seems to be for residents more than wineries, but the red flag fire warning is expected to remain in place until Friday morning.